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This is class war! Between club class and economy, that is

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

So, here I am in club class on a plane running under the flag of a Well- Known Airline. Yes, yes, I know. What is a column calling itself “Down and Out” doing in club class? You may well ask. Well, sometimes this kind of thing happens, even to hacks. In my case, never before. If you spend your professional life working for newspapers and magazines of a liberal disposition, you’re lucky to blag a freebie to High Wycombe. But the magazine I’m writing for – not this one, it hardly needs saying – is stumping up and who am I to argue? The class struggle can go on hold for eight hours.

Class struggle

And yet . . . it can’t, not really. Loath to spend the four days at my destination on my own, I have decided to stump up half the economy fare for the Beloved so she can come with me. I also entertain a notion that we can swap over halfway through the flight and she can spend some time in the lap of luxury – a phrase that is a cliché, I know, but when the seat folds down flat and you can have as much champagne as you want, it somehow seems to have the force of accurate description.

The problem is, as so much is, all about class. About the only positive thing one can take away from the lesson I learned is that, for once, it is not necessarily the British class system that is to blame. It is the very structure of humanity. Let me explain.

So, there we are, the B and I, who have struggled in the early dawn light to get to Gatwick (a pain to get to, but it does have that groovy shuttle to the North Terminal, where you can look out of the front – “this is the best bit!” I say), are now parted at the door of the plane, where I turn right, she turns left. I have earlier tried to get her an upgrade, retaining a folk memory of the days when you could get an upgrade with a plausible manner, a winning smile and a nice suit; but those days are long gone. Upgrades are indeed available – if you pay something like £1,000 extra.

And I am shepherded into the club class bit. A steward offers me a glass of champagne. I accept it; and, for good measure, another. (I am a nervous flyer, unless anaesthetised.) The seats . . . they’re not seats, they’re cubicles. The cubicle I have been allotted – well, actually, it’s more like a spare room – has a fogged plastic dividing wall so you do not have to look at the pampered, ugly mug of the running dog of capitalism sitting next to you.

There is actually nobody sitting next to me and I have been given an aisle seat, which, although right behind the cockpit, is not my cuppa, so I ask if I can have a window seat instead, and the flight is so empty that I can (yet somehow they cannot see fit to bung in a few Morlocks from economy to fill it up and also give them the treat of their lives). What is more, this seat faces backwards and I can gaze at the engine’s turbine, so I’ll be the first to know if it stops; also, I gather backwards- facing seats are a good idea if the plane crashes.

I do manage to wangle an extra club class sponge bag, which contains a toothbrush, an individual portion of toothpaste, an eye mask, and two grammes of high-grade, uncut cocaine. (I made that last bit up.) Thinking the B might appreciate it, as well as my third glass of champagne, I sidle into economy. My, the seats look cramped. The seatbelt light has barely been switched off and I am reappraising my fellow human beings with unsavoury and ignoble feelings.

Guilt trip

A stewardess tells me that it is forbidden to take items from club into economy. She does not confiscate these items, to her credit, but my unease has been reinforced. And can you take items from economy into club? Like people, for example?

Earlier, I had asked about swapping seats during the flight and was told that, theoretically, after the meal has been served, this was possible, but now I begin to wonder. Worse, I wonder if this is desirable. I don’t fancy sitting here, I want to go back to my hotel suite. I have been spoiled. Literally: turned rotten.

So I spend the rest of the flight wondering what kind of wanker pays three times the cost of a ticket to sit apart from the plebs – or even blandly accepts that such a system should operate in the first place – and it doesn’t take me too long to come up with the answer: I am.

So, if I feel really, really guilty about sitting up here, does that make me any better a human being? And I am afraid I work out the answer to that one pretty quickly, too.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special